In 2017, when Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham County, was briefly congressman from the 5th District, he held a town hall meeting in Moneta, a very common thing for a legislator to do. A very uncommon thing transpired there, however: a heavy police presence.
I counted some 40 uniformed police officers there, plus private security and who knows how many plainclothes officers. This, Politico reported at the time, came at the behest of Capitol Police, who were investigating death threats against the congressman. Some of these were particularly vile: One anonymous email described “this is how we’re going to kill your wife.” Another vowed to take a chainsaw to Garrett. Capitol Police took these threats seriously enough to order up the extraordinary show of force. I’ve been to lots of political town halls and I’ve never seen anything like it; I’ve seen members of Congress show up alone, maybe sometimes with an aide or two, but never with any security.
Why Garrett – then just five months into his single term in Congress and not a particularly high-profile member at that – became such a target was a mystery then and remains a mystery now. These, though, are the times we live in.
The memory of that heavily armed town hall meeting in Moneta five years ago came back to me in the wake of Friday’s assault on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That suspect appears to have been steeped in the online world of far-right conspiracy theories, based on reporting by Politico and multiple other national news sites, but the threat of political violence in this country is not confined to just one ideology. About a month after those death threats against Garrett, someone did carry out actual violence – not against him but against other Republican members of Congress. A left-wing political activist showed up at a baseball field in Alexandria, where Republican congressmen were practicing for the annual charity Democrats vs. Republicans game, and shot six people, including then-Majority Whip Steve Scalise. A report by the Secret Service later revealed that the shooter – who was shot and killed by police at the scene – had three handwritten notes in his pocket. One listed the address of the offices of six Republican congressmen, including Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.
I cite all this background – bipartisan background – to put in context the much-criticized response by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to the Pelosi attack.
Former Vice President Mike Pence (who might turn out to be the most consequential vice president in the nation’s history for his fidelity to the Constitution and democratic norms on Jan. 6, 2021) tweeted: “This is an outrage and our hearts are with the entire Pelosi family. We pray Paul will make a full recovery. There can be no tolerance for violence against public officials or their families. This man should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted: “Horrified and disgusted by the reports that Paul Pelosi was assaulted in his and Speaker Pelosi’s home last night. Grateful to hear that Paul is on track to make a full recovery and that law enforcement including our stellar Capitol Police are on the case.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted: “What happened to Paul Pelosi last night is horrific. Heidi & I are praying for him & Nancy & the entire Pelosi family. May God’s protection be upon them. We can have our political differences, but violence is always wrong & unacceptable.”
And then there was Youngkin, who spoke at a rally in Stafford County for the Republican candidate for the 7th Congressional District: “Speaker Pelosi’s husband had a break-in last night in their house, and he was assaulted. There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re gonna send her back to be with him in California. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Do you see the difference?
There are some moments that do not allow for levity and this was one of them. Had Youngkin stopped after “there’s no room for violence anywhere,” he’d have been fine. By continuing on, he diminished the seriousness of the moment and his own condemnation. For his remarks, Youngkin has been roundly criticized – at least by Democrats. Republicans are unlikely to criticize one of their own – that’s the nature of politics – but their responses to the attack speak volumes. They have either strongly condemned the attack, with no equivocation, or they have said nothing.
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares falls in the former camp: “As I’ve said before, violence has no place in our political discourse or society, and anyone who does so is a coward who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Former President Donald Trump falls into the latter. He’s said absolutely nothing. For that matter, neither the official nor campaign sites for Reps. Ben Cline, Bob Good or Morgan Griffith have tweeted anything, either. They’ve found time to tweet on other things, but not on this.
The Washington Post says Youngkin’s flip addition to his condemnation “is the latest example of Youngkin’s carefully scripted mainstream image clashing with his efforts to throw red meat to the Trump base of the Republican Party.” It also seems to me to suggest a certain political immaturity, a sign that maybe Youngkin isn’t quite as ready for prime time as we’ve thought. In fairness, he probably didn’t think this through – it might have seemed a funny thing to say at the time – but it’s in exactly such unscripted moments that politicians reveal themselves. I don’t think Youngkin is a bad man – I think he’s a fundamentally decent fellow – but this makes me wonder how well he understands some of the dark forces moving through American society.
The attack on Pelosi’s husband is no laughing matter because, as we’ve seen, political violence is not confined by ideology. This assault may be a classic “lone wolf” sort of attack but that doesn’t mean it’s without context. This comes against a larger backdrop of political violence – and threats of more – across the country, with the treasonous storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, being just the most prominent example.
I am troubled – we should all be troubled – by politicians who ignore or discount these trends. There are serious-minded people who warn that we have become politically polarized – and so tolerant of the bloody rhetoric screaming out of the political fringes – that we are potentially headed for a civil war. Others consider this laughable, but we may be getting hung up on the phrase “civil war.” We’re not going to see a future U.S. Grant or Robert E. Lee maneuvering large armies across the country, but we may well see the classic signs of a violent political insurgency, with seemingly random attacks here or there. In that context, all these examples – from the death threats against Garrett to the attack on Republican ballplayers in 2017 to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville later that year to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol to this assault on the speaker’s husband – are part of the same piece. Political violence is already bubbling up. Future generations may judge us on how we reacted to these warning signs and what we did to prevent this danger from spiraling further out of control.
I’ve written before that it’s incumbent on politicians – from both parties – to try to turn down the temperature. They don’t need to abandon their heartfelt policy positions, but they do need to dial back much of their rhetoric that casts politics in the language of war because there are people out there who might take those words that far too literally. Those on the other side (whatever you think the other side is) may be political opponents, but they are not our enemies – they are fellow citizens with whom we simply have a policy disagreement. That’s hardly an original thought. Abraham Lincoln said, and said it better, in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” When I wrote that back in July, someone from the left tweeted in response that I was wrong – that it’s time to rachet up the heat. At the risk of getting into a tit-for-tat, I think that’s wrong – I think that’s exactly the kind of response that will push this country to the breaking point. And beyond. People ignored Lincoln, too, and you see where that got us.
That’s why I’m disappointed in Youngkin adding a laugh line to his condemnation of the Pelosi attack. Youngkin is a serious man. He wouldn’t have gotten to be co-CEO of The Carlyle Group if he wasn’t. And, for the most part, he’s governed seriously. That’s not to say I’ve agreed with everything he’s done – someone can govern with gravitas and not govern the way I like – but he is clearly a politician who is in command of the facts. After he spoke last week in Bristol as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series, Youngkin sat down with me and two of Cardinal’s reporters for an interview. He rattled off lots of facts and figures on multiple topics. Being journalists, we were skeptical of some of those, and set out to fact-check. Turns out, Youngkin was right on all of them. Again, he may be wrong on policy – that’s a matter of political taste – but he struck me as a chief executive who knows what he’s talking about (unlike certain other politicians who shall go unnamed). That’s why I find it baffling that someone who can so clearly analyze certain sets of complicated facts – from demographic trends to nuclear science – can seem so oblivious to the looming threats to American democracy. Openly backing candidates who don’t pledge to honor election results is one of those. Adding a quip to a condemnation of political violence against someone from the other party is another. They may not be of the same weight but they are connected.
You need not like Pence, McConnell, Cruz and Miyares to agree to agree with them that political violence is wrong – period, end of statement, no elaboration or laugh lines required. They got the moment right.
Likewise, those who like Youngkin’s politics ought to be able to acknowledge that the governor did not.